Monster Tennessee Catfishing Spots
August 19, 2011
"It was like hooking into a locomotive. I could feel the fish moving, but I couldn't stop it," outdoor columnist Owen Schroeder from Clarksville described. "My saltwater rod was bent nearly double and line was zipping off the reel as I held on."
Schroeder landed that blue catfish that pulled him all around the Mississippi River.
"That was one of the most thrilling fishing adventures that I've ever had."
His thrill weighed 83-pounds and was 50 inches long with a girth of 34 1/2 inches. That qualifies as a monster catfish.
ABOUT THE CATS
Blue catfish grow larger than other cats in Tennessee. Of the state's six catfish species three get the most attention; blues, channels, and flatheads. The blue and flathead catfish grow to weigh more than 100 pounds, while channels usually peak at about 40 pounds.
State records almost match these numbers. For blue cats it's 112 pounds caught at Lock C on the Cumberland River near Cumberland City. In the case of flatheads the record is 85 pounds, 15 ounces taken from the Hiwassee River area of Chickamauga Lake. For channel cats the mark is 41 pounds from Fall Creek Falls Lake.
Blue catfish rival the channel catfish as table fare. Blues prefer large rivers and stay in the main body of the flows rather than up tributaries. They also like to travel up and down those streams. Their numbers decline when rivers are impounded, but stocking has taken up that slack in most waters.
Blues usually spawn in May or June when water temperatures reach the 70- to 75-degree range. The males build nests under logs and in holes along the riverbank.
Channel catfish prefer smaller rivers with sand and gravel bottoms, and they do well in ponds. This species is more adaptable than the blue catfish. Like blues, channel cats feed more often at night.
Channel cats spawn in late May and June when the water is between 75 and 80 degrees.
Adult channel catfish may be mistaken for blues since they have a tendency to lose their spots. Another reason they may be misidentified is because they cross breed with blue cats.
A prediction that a cross between a blue and channel catfish would result in a monster weighing more than 300 pounds has yet to prove true, but one weighing 150 pounds was documented in 1879 according to David Etnier and Wayne Stranes in their book The Fishes of Tennessee. The channel cat is also known to hybridize with the reclusive flathead catfish.
Flathead catfish are also known as mud cats or yellow cats and live in rivers and some tributaries. It ambushes prey and prefers live to dead baits. This cat hides and darts out to grab dinner like bass do. It prefers calm water and holds amid logjams and debris in deep pools.
Flatheads spawn in June and July in water ranging from the upper 70s to lower 80s, and its nests are usually under logs and boulders, or in holes in the bank.
Of Tennessee's three big cats, the flathead is probably most difficult to catch due to its solitary lifestyle and preference for live bait. Blue and channel cats scavenge and eat about anything from live bait to things that smell so strongly anglers forego their use. Obviously, this varied diet makes them more susceptible to sport fishing.
"I consider any fish on my line as a trophy," Owen Schroeder noted. "My philosophy is that the only difference between a 1-pound fish and a 20-pound fish is 19 pounds. Of course, it is always a thrill to catch a big fish. I'm partial to the blue catfish because they can grow to such large sizes."
Schroeder hooked his monster blue cat under the I-40 bridge at Memphis directly across from Mud Island and along the western side of the river. He and his guide James Patterson from Memphis were fishing around some big rocks on the bottom at 40 to 45 feet.
Schroeder's baits for the day were skipjack and Asian carp. The skipjack were frozen and 10 to 15 inches long. On the other hand, the 4- to 6-inch Asian carp were freshly taken with a cast net near the boat ramp at Mud Island.
James Patterson's boat is set up especially for big cats and he employs custom saltwater tackle.
"My previous best catch with James was a 45-pound blue cat," Schroeder added.
Phil King from Corinth, Miss. loves battling monster blue cats in the Tennessee River below Pickwick Dam.
"River systems without dikes hold cats in the outside bends, inside bends, drop-offs, and deep ledges with structure. Smaller holes or depressions in the bottom of the river can be excellent places for cats to congregate or for a couple of big fish to hold."
King's largest blue cat was a true monster. A 103.1-pounder caught at Memphis on the Mississippi River.
His unique catfish rig consists of a three-way swivel, a 4-foot leader of 14- to 20-pound-test monofilament and a two-ounce bell sinker. Also from the other eye on the swivel he connects is a foot of 60-pound-test mono, a barrel swivel and 10 inches more of 60-pound. The rig culminates in a pair of Kahle hooks. The barrel swivel prevents line-twist from the bait spinning in the current.
Both Kahle hooks are snelled and about eight apart. This type knot keeps the hook in position to penetrate the cat's mouth.
Although King uses different baits throughout the year, skipjack is his favorite.
"I make a skipjack sandwich by scaling a foot-long skipjack, slicing off the fillets, and taking out the intestines. The entrails are sandwiched between the fillets on the top 4/0 Kahle hook. I leave the other hook lose. This sandwich combination twirls in the current and looks like an injured baitfish and smells a heck of a lot like one too. It's a big mouthful of bait, but a cat that can swallow your arm has no trouble with it."
Using his sonar, King looks for rocks or logs piled underwater either along the bank or in the channel. He targets 25 to 70 feet of water along an irregular bottom.
"The cats holding against the upstream ledges at the bottom of the drop or along the sides of the deep ledge are waiting for food to wash by," he concluded.
Jim Moyer of Clarkesville is a guide on the Cumberland River, and especially Lake Barkley.
"Clients can bring whatever gear they want, but often those rods go home in splinters, even the stoutest ones. A number of clients' think a big catfish is a 5-pounder. They didn't realize they could be catching them 30, 40 or 60 pounds."
Moyer has patterned blue catfish movement week by week on this river, with his base Starting point being Bumpus Mills in September.
"Through the winter, they move upstream to Clarksville and keep right on going until they get to Cheatham Dam in the spring. They spend a few days at the dam feeding then they migrate a mile or two downstream to eddies, ledges, and current breaks where they spawn. Then they return to the river channel and start moving back down to Bumpus Mills again. From one day to the next, you can just about tell where the fish will be."
During July Moyer looks for blue cats below the first sharp bend in the river downstream of the dam where there are current breaks. Blue cats will have spawned in June among the rocks. He says anglers should fish the deepest ledges they can find. The fish will be there all of July but by August they will start moving back downstream.
Lebanon guide Jim Duckworth looks for deep holes in the Cumberland River below Cordell Hull and Old Hickory Dams with his side scanning sonar. First he looks for large fish at the front or back of the hole.
"I fish for them with live skipjacks or cut bait," He said.
But before he begins the search he catches his own bait.
"I cast a Daiichi Sabiki rig that has a 1/2-ounce bell sinker on the bottom and six small flies on a 4-foot leader," Duckworth described. "I cast into the boils below a dam or around at steam plant discharge. I reel in as fast as I can on a spinning rod.
"I anchor upstream of the catfish I mark on sonar," the guide continued. "One trick I use is to lower a mesh potato sack with cut bait and a brick then tie it off. This puts fish scent into water; it draws fish like flies."
Duckworth's largest 54-pound blue catfish was taken from Percy Priest Lake.
"I always begin my search for flathead cats in deep log jams or near large fallen logs in deep holes in lakes and rivers," Jim Duckworth describe. "They spend their daylight hours in these type places year-round and come up to feed at night on bluegills, shad, and anything else they can get their giant maws on.
"I fish for flatheads in the daytime by using my side imaging sonar to scan the deep holes. Sometimes I can't see the fish because they get into the logjam," he said. "My answer to this problem is to lower an underwater camera and look for fish. When I find them I anchor and cast a boat length in front of the logjam.
"I put a live bluegill or shad on a Carolina rig with 65-pound-test SpiderWire and the amount of weight I need to hold the bottom. Then from the swivel I use a 4-foot leader of 50-pound-test mono to a 2 or 6 Daiichi circle hook, depending on the size of the fish I see."
Duckworth also fishes at night with cylindrical, floating swimming pool accessories known as "noodles." He cuts them to about 2 feet long.
"I've caught fish over 40 pounds on noodles. To target flatheads use bluegills about 4 inches long with a 4-foot drop on the noodle. I drop the floats on flats next to river or creek channels. My biggest flathead was caught on a noodle — a 61-pounder."
"To me channel cats are the easiest to catch," Jim Duckworth offered. "They aren't picky eaters like flatheads and blues — if it's food, they will eat it."
He uses the same rig for channel cats, except he downsizes to 20-pound-test line and 1 to a 3 Daiichi circle hooks.
"Channels are the No. 1 cat you catch on jugs and noodles. My biggest channel weighed around 20 pounds that I caught at Center Hills Lake."
Phil King seeks areas with banks littered with rocks and fallen timber, and he fishes drop-offs ranging from two to 30 feet deep. The heaviest channel cat one of his clients landed below the Pickwick Dam was a 15-pounder. Above the dam, he fishes rock bluffs and areas laced with fallen timber.
"There are all kinds of cracks in the rocks where channels back in to spawn and ambush a meal," King concluded
You can hang a monster catfish in many of Tennessee's waters and anytime of year. But what you call a "monster" doesn't have to weigh a hundred pounds — it's just got to be one you can brag about.
But either way, this summer is a good time for chasing that cat of a lifetime!